Arizona lacks funds to find, secure at least 100,000 abandoned mines

PHOENIX – After he started hallucinating, John Waddell began to believe he would die. He had fallen 100 feet to the bottom of an abandoned gold mine in western Maricopa County, leaving him with a broken leg and rope-burned hands.

“It’s like a black cloud that’s a little stringy, and these figures were coming out of this little cloud: It almost looked like animals,” he recalled during an October news conference at Banner-University Medical Center in Phoenix. “They were going around and around inside the mine.

“That was kind of freaky. If I stayed down there, I knew I was going to die.”

Waddell, 60, survived three days in El Tigre mine, fighting off rattlesnakes and praying somebody would look for him. He had explored the mine, which is on his property near Aguila, for decades, hoping to find gold still glittering in the dark tunnels.

He’s among potentially thousands of people – often spurred by curiosity, greed or dumb luck – who seek out or stumble into Arizona’s vast store of mines abandoned by long-dead prospectors.

The state has an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines, according to the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office. However, officials have only identified about 19,000 of them, and they’ve secured even fewer. As more people move to and visit Arizona – many eager to explore the state’s more remote lands – the chances of coming across one of these hazardous mines only increases.

Abandoned-mine supervisor Jerry Tyra, 75, and one other person are tasked with searching Arizona’s 9.3 million acres for abandoned mines and securing them. They face the daunting task of trying to keep the public away from old mines, a challenge exacerbated by the fact the state doesn’t have a good handle on how many abandoned mines there really are. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

“We run into new mines every day,” said Laurie Swartzbaugh, deputy director of the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office.

The office only has two supervisors tasked with searching Arizona’s 9.3 million acres for these mines and securing them. They have legal authority to search all of the land, public or private. But these supervisors face the daunting task of trying to keep the public away from these mines, a challenge exacerbated by the fact the state doesn’t have a good handle on how many abandoned mines there really are.

Many experts believe Arizona has among the most abandoned mines in the country.

The mine inspector’s office has repeatedly requested more funding to help locate and secure these mines, but the Legislature has not granted a significant budget increase for its abandoned-mines program in a decade.

“We just don’t have enough people to get them all,” Swartzbaugh said.

State officials said it’s only a matter of time before more people die in these mines.

At least 35 people have died and 22 have been injured in abandoned mines in Arizona since 1969 – at least, that’s the best count from the mine inspector’s office. In fact, no state or federal agency has the exact number of deaths and injuries in Arizona because there’s no requirement that such accidents be reported.

The history: Mining goes unregulated for decades

Arizona did not begin regulating hardrock mining until the 1980s, and experts say tens of thousands of abandoned mines lie undiscovered. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

Native Americans may have mined the land for turquoise, coal, clay and other minerals as early as 1000 BC, according to the State Mine Inspector’s Office. Spaniards began mining the land that would eventually become Arizona in the 1600s, according to the Arizona Mining Association, and over the next 400 years, the state’s rich bed of gold, silver, copper and other precious metals drew fortune seekers from around the world.

As the American West became more developed, larger mining operations opened, state mining officials said. Metal structures and mine carts began to dot the landscape, and abandoned mines became more common as prospectors left unsuccessful ventures for more profitable ones.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Arizona began regulating hardrock mines more closely, mine experts in the state said. The state began to require mine operators to fill out hundreds of pages of paperwork and conduct environmental studies. Under current state law, prospectors must develop a plan for how to fill in any hole they open before they start digging.

Spaniards began mining the land in the 1600s, and for the next 400 years, Arizona’s rich bed of precious metals drew fortune seekers from around the world. (Photo by Daisy Finch/Cronkite News)

But mines that were dug in the centuries before had no such regulation. That lack of oversight for hundreds of years led to sprawling underground complexes the state didn’t even know existed – much less had the capability to ensure a safe closure when the ore deposits ran out, state mining officials said.

Each mine site may have several entrances and exits, called adits, along with vertical shafts – some as deep as 900 feet – to help miners get air underground. Each of these tunnels is called a “feature,” and a mine complex can have dozens of them.

The sheer number of features can make it more difficult and time consuming for officials to identify and secure all a mine’s parts.

It’s often impossible to determine the depth or length of an abandoned mine from the surface.

“What you see would be the open shafts, the entrances to the mine,” said Eric Zielske, an environmental engineer at the federal Bureau of Land Management’s main office in Phoenix. “That may not, from the surface, look like it has that big of a footprint until you realize ‘OK, there’s another shaft over here, another shaft there.’”

This aerial view of Oatman in December 1915 shows multiple mine locations, mining companies and townsites. (Photo courtesy of Mohave Museum)

The dangers: From hidden shafts to explosive materials

Abandoned mines often inspire treasure hunters, such as Waddell.

El Tigre mine, which began operating in 1939, is spread out over the 100 acres Waddell owns west of Phoenix.

“This particular shaft in my records indicated there was quite a bit of gold down inside, and I had explored everything else around the mine,” Waddell said, adding, “This is what I’ve been doing for 20 years. It gets in your blood.”

But people often underestimate the danger of entering and exploring these old mines. The dangers include collapsing boards and rocks, water-filled pits, dangerous animals, old explosives or hazardous chemicals and poor air quality, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“They’re neat sites to go to, so sometimes you get people (who) like to camp out there,” Zielske said. “The risk there is people like to explore these open mine shafts or adits, and they don’t realize sometimes when you go walking into one of those areas, you can have limited oxygen.”

These mines are often in rugged, remote areas with limited cell phone service.

In Waddell’s case, his rigging snapped during his descent into the mine, and he had no way of contacting help. Without service, his cellphone was useless, so he had no choice but to wait until a friend came looking for him.

Waddell had told Terry Schrader where he was headed. Two days later, when Waddell still had not returned, Schrader set out.

“I thought I heard somebody pull up with a diesel truck. It was real quiet, and I started yelling and yelling ‘Help! Help!’” Waddell recalled at the hospital news conference in October.

“I started hearing someone hollering back, and I broke down and started crying because I knew that I’m going to get out of here.”

The U.S. Forest Service points out that people can run into bats, snakes, spiders, bobcats, mountain lions and other predators in these mines.

“Where I landed, I would have been face-to-face with this rattlesnake. Why it didn’t bite me or strike at me at first, I don’t know. But it didn’t,” Waddell said. “I pulled out the stick and started beating on this rattlesnake.”

Waddell killed the snake, the first of three during his three days underground.

But one wrong step on Waddell’s part could have led to disaster, as it has for many others.

Light shines through a collapsed wall in an abandoned mine about 40 minutes west of Kingman. There are an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines throughout Arizona; many have no fences or warning signs to keep people out. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

In 1982, 15-year-old John Borrowdale died while exploring an abandoned mine in Arizona he found while hunting with a friend. In the darkness inside, he missed an 850-foot vertical shaft inside the main tunnel and fell to his death, according to records from the Arizona State Mine Inspector.

Dozens of people die or become injured in the U.S. every year while exploring or playing on both active and abandoned mine sites, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Roger Yensen, commander of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s volunteer Mountain Rescue Posse, said his unit alone rescues somebody from a mine shaft once every 12 to 16 months.

But – as with the number of abandoned mines – the state doesn’t have precise records for the number of accidents at these mines.

Until 2007, the mine inspector’s office tracked abandoned mine-related accidents by collecting newspaper clippings.

“I can’t guarantee what made the newspapers and what didn’t,” Swartzbaugh said. She said the office likely missed “some accidents or things that occurred that were not ever in the newspapers.”

For the past 11 years, the office has relied on law enforcement agencies to relay the information to them if a mine accident happens. But the state has no mandatory reporting policy, and what to report, if anything, falls to the individual agency responding to an incident.

Before Waddell’s accident, state records indicate the last abandoned mine shaft injury reported to the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office was in 2009.

But officials said growing population centers, including metro Phoenix and Tucson, are bringing more people in contact with previously hidden abandoned mines.

“You’re encroaching if we’re building out in those areas,” Swartzbaugh said. “Phoenix was not as large and as broken into as many cities in the 1800s. So, we’re encroaching on them.”

Even South Mountain Park, a hiking mecca for Phoenix and the largest municipal park in the country, has several easily accessible abandoned mines, including the well-trafficked Max Delta mine.

Havasu 4 Wheelers Club member Jim Bowen lets air out of his Jeep’s tires before making the drive through rough terrain in the Mojave Desert. Club members were out recently to check the fencing they’ve installed around several abandoned mines. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

The solutions: Is money the only answer?

Several leaders from abandoned-mine programs in other states said the easiest way to improve safety is simple: provide the mine inspector’s office more money so it can hire more supervisors and pay for the materials to secure the mines.

Until that happens, the Arizona Mine Inspector’s Office must make do with the resources it has. Some civilian groups also have stepped in to help – although that’s not necessarily the solution state officials want.

Arizona’s abandoned mine program has a budget of just more than $194,000 per year, a drop in the bucket of the state’s $10.1 billion budget, which allocates the bulk of funding to education, health and correctional programs.

“That’s not very much money to operate a program,” said Autumn Coleman, president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Programs. “But it is better than nothing.”

The state, which could have the largest number of abandoned mines in the country, has not provided more money to the program – other than administrative adjustments, such as liability insurance – since the program was formally granted a budget in 2009. The inspector’s office has made yearly requests for more money, government budget documents show.

“We need more people out there to cover more ground because every time we go out (for) on-the-ground reconnaissance, we encounter more and more mines that are not in our database,” Swartzbaugh said.

Elise Kulik, an analyst for the governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, declined to comment on Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget priorities, deferring to a spokeswoman for the governor. That spokeswoman declined an interview with Cronkite News or to answer specific questions, but she sent a general statement about the governor’s budget priorities.

“We work closely with leaders, including the state mine inspector, to develop agency budgets with the goal of ensuring public health and safety of Arizonans,” the statement read.

Many other states fund their abandoned-mine programs through coal-mine taxes. But Arizona, California and Nevada produce little or no coal.

“If you don’t have any coal mines in your state, you don’t have any funding for the state mine inspector,” said Tom Gilleland, who owns Prescott-based Mine Gates Environmental, a company that designs and builds gates for abandoned mines and caves.

Arizona is the only one of the three low-coal Western states that does not have a dedicated revenue stream to its abandoned-mine program. California’s Department of Conservation revenue comes from gold mining, and Nevada’s program receives $10 for every mining claim submitted in the state. Nevada’s abandoned-mine program received more than $1 million in 2017, according to that state’s Division of Minerals.

In its inventory database, the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s office has the location of about 19,000 mine features, roughly the number that Nevada’s program has already closed.

Because so many abandoned mines have gone unidentified and unsecured in Arizona, some civilian groups have taken on the effort themselves.

– Video by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News

For the past decade, the Havasu 4 Wheelers Club – a recreational group whose members bounce through the Mojave Desert in Jeeps – has prowled the dozens of trails near Lake Havasu City and fenced off about 180 abandoned-mine adits and shafts to keep other off-roaders safe, group representatives said.

“This is one of the first ones we did,” said Darryld Kautzmann, the fencing coordinator for the club, pointing to a barrier at the bottom of a rocky hill in the Mojave Desert during a trip in October to check on past work.

“We’ve fenced virtually every complex,” he said. “Now we’ve got isolated mines.”

Kautzmann, 78, checked the posts and examined the barbed wire of the fence, making sure erosion around the edges of the pit hadn’t loosened the barrier.

The group wants to ensure off-road vehicles don’t accidentally drive into an abandoned mine while cresting a hill or passing too close to an unseen hole.

Kautzmann said a member of the club came close to dying in one mineshaft 10 years ago. He drove his Jeep halfway into the shaft, which was at least 30 feet deep, on the edge of a popular trail. Other club members saved the driver by winching the back of his vehicle and dragging it out.

However, the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office discourages groups such as the Havasu 4 Wheelers Club from trying to secure mine features. Officials worry about the risk of well-meaning fencers falling to their death.

“We do not encourage someone to go out to these abandoned mines to post or fence or to look for them,” Swartzbaugh said. “If you step on them, you fall – and either a short distance, which might be 30 feet, or you fall a lot further than that and you don’t survive it.”

The Green Valley News reported in 2017 about a group called the Hazardous Abandoned Mine Finders, which had been doing similar civilian fencing work across Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties since 1989.

The group reportedly put up warning signs and fence posts around 10,000 abandoned-mine features, but it shut down when the U.S. Forest Service pulled support from the group, citing staff members’ concerns about safety.

Havasu 4 Wheelers Club members downplayed the threat.

“We’ve got people with a variety of backgrounds to work in hazardous situations,” said Jim Bowen, a former president of the Havasu 4 Wheelers Club. He said many of the group’s 450 members are retired firefighters, police officers and EMTs. “We go out as a group, and we’ve become very efficient at doing it.”

Groups such as the Havasu 4 Wheelers Club are rare because groups that interact with abandoned mines could be liable for any future deaths or injuries, especially if any environmental problems occur, according to current federal law.

“We don’t really see too much of what we would call the Good Samaritans going out building these fences,” said Robert Ghiglieri, chief of Nevada’s Abandoned Mine Lands program. “There are large companies that would be willing to do some Good Samaritan work, but they understand, especially with environmental, once they touch it, they own it, and nobody wants to bring that liability onto themselves.”

Tom Gilleland, who owns Mine Gates Environmental, designs and builds gates to cover mine entrances, exits and vertical shafts. (Photo by Daisy Finch/Cronkite News)

The fences aren’t foolproof

Fencing is the most common and inexpensive method to secure abandoned mines, but it’s also one of the least effective, according to mine safety experts, because it can highlight the mine’s existence to curious explorers, who merely have to cut wire, duck under a fence or kick down a post to subvert the barrier.

Installing metal gates over shafts and adits are more effective at stopping people, but they’re also more expensive.

Gilleland, whose company bids on government contracts for such projects, said the shop does fewer jobs in Arizona than in neighboring Nevada and New Mexico.

“They have no funding,” Gilleland said of Arizona. While Gilleland declined to give a price range for his services, officials from the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office say each gate can run in the thousands of dollars. In comparison, a fence usually costs less than $100.

Partnerships and other solutions may help lower the danger for Arizona’s high number of abandoned mines, but the only true solution is spending more money, said Coleman, with the National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Programs.

“That’s pretty much what it comes down to,” she said.

In the meantime, Swartzbaugh submitted the office’s next budget proposal to Ducey on Aug. 30. The proposal includes a $347,000 request to hire three additional people for the abandoned-mines program, including supervisors. Mine Inspector Joe Hart, who declined multiple interview requests by Cronkite News, has written the same letter to accompany that request every year since his election in 2006.

“We can only anticipate that additional deaths and injuries will occur under the existing conditions,” Hart wrote. “It is not a matter of ‘if,’ it is a matter of when another death or injury will occur.”

– Videos by Bryce Newberry/Cronkite News

Hunters help safeguard Arizona’s deer and elk from chronic wasting disease

GREER – On a chilly fall morning in eastern Arizona, families taking part in a youth hunting camp awoke before dawn to hunt elk.

Gage Martinez, 14, was one of the last to shoot an elk, but by midmorning, it was skinned and hanging from a tree by its hind legs.

“I was so excited, my hand was shaking,” Martinez said.

Meanwhile, three Arizona Game & Fish Department biologists gathered around the elk’s head. One of them used a small knife to cut into the animal’s cheek to remove the lymph nodes, which will be sent to a lab in Colorado to be tested for chronic wasting disease, or CWD.

CWD is a neurodegenerative disease found in deer, elk and moose populations. It’s prevalent in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, which neighbor Arizona. Infected animals become unresponsive, emaciated and eventually die.

So far, regular testing and strict laws have kept Arizona CWD free. But that could change quickly.

“It’s a big challenge,” said Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with Arizona Game & Fish. “It may be an impossible challenge, because states that we didn’t think were going to get it now have it.”

Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, pulls out the lymph nodes from an elk’s cheek. The nodes will be sent to Colorado for chronic wasting disease testing. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

Last year, CWD was found in Montana. The year before, it was discovered in Arkansas. The disease now has been detected in 24 states, where it has reduced herds by 20 to 40 percent.

“We need to make sure that wildlife populations are healthy because they really play an important role in keeping the landscape and the environment sustained,” Justice-Allen said.

Researchers are trying to learn more about the disease and to find a vaccine, but right now there is no cure.

“In Colorado and other states, we don’t know how to eradicate it,” said Travis Duncan, a spokesman with Colorado’s Park and Wildlife Department. “All we can do is manage it.”

Hunting season is key

Hunters are on the front line of Arizona’s efforts to keep the disease at bay.

There is no way to determine whether a deer or elk has CWD until the late stages of the disease, when physical symptoms appear.

“You may have seen signage or posters with sick-looking deer that lead us to believe anyone can visually identify it,” Duncan said. “But in reality, most deer with CWD look perfectly healthy and you would never be able to tell.”

David Drever, a biologist intern with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, writes information about the elk and where it was killed on a slip paper to be included with the lymph node sample. The department hires extra interns in the fall to help with chronic wasting disease testing. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

There is no blood test for CWD, so the animal must be dead to collect and test a lymph-node sample.

“That’s part of the reason why managing it through hunting and testing the deer that people harvest is the best option we have,” Duncan said.

Hunting season is the only time of the year when Arizona Game & Fish can regularly test for CWD. The goal is to test as many animals as possible during this time.

Last year, the department tested more than 1,200 samples statewide, and officials hope to test even more this year.

“Our goal is to test enough animals on an annual basis to try and make sure we can detect it if it’s present in even just 1 percent of the population,” Justice-Allen said.

Arizona Game & Fish opened a new testing center in Springerville to help with this goal, and Justice-Allen and her team are going to more hunting camps this season to collect samples and spread awareness.

“We’re talking to hunters and letting them know what we’re doing out here and why it’s important that we’re doing the disease-monitoring project and taking samples,” said David Drever, a biologist intern with Game & Fish.

Not all hunters, however, process the meat themselves or take the time to voluntarily provide their animal for testing, so the department pays professional taxidermists and meat processors to fill in the gaps. Justice-Allen said about half of the samples Game & Fish tests are collected from these sources.

Rusty Rogers, a hunter and a committe member of the White Mountain Chapter of the Rocky Mountian Elk Foundation, worries about the possibility of CWD coming to the state. He said all it would take is one case of CWD to devastate deer herds. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

Arizona quick to act

Beyond testing, Arizona has strict laws related to captive deer management and how deer meat is handled. Experts say these measures are another key part of the state’s success at keeping CWD out of the state.

Arizona has banned traditional deer farms where private owners raise deer to hunt or sell byproducts because of concerns about the potential role these farms could have in spreading CWD.

But zoos and animal sanctuaries, such as Grand Canyon Deer Farm near Williams, are allowed to keep captive deer.

Amy Kravitz, a biologist at the deer farm, said the farm submits deer for disease testing anytime one dies. The farm also needs special permission from Game & Fish to import deer, she said, and can only bring in animals from CWD-free states.

The state also bans people from bringing whole deer carcasses or central nervous tissue – the brain and spinal cord, which contain the highest concentrations of the protein that causes CWD – into Arizona.

In addition, Arizona is one of only a few states to ban hunters from using deer urine or grain feed as bait to attract game, due to concerns these methods can cause the disease to spread more quickly.

“Some of these things occur in other areas of the country,” Justice-Allen said. “Here we’re cautious and just don’t allow it.”

An uphill battle

Despite such efforts, chronic wasting disease has continued to spread since it was first detected in wild deer populations in Colorado in 1981.

“It’s something that we’re always thinking about and concerned about,” Justice-Allen said.

This is part of the reason why Arizona Game & Fish has redoubled its efforts in recent years to collect more samples. The disease, however, often is spread by natural deer movement, which can’t be controlled. Wild deer can travel 50 to 100 miles, so it’s possible CWD infected deer from a neighboring state can cross into Arizona.

“In some states like Montana, where it was just detected last year,” Justice-Allen said, “it’s probably been there for a year or two before they found it.”

If the disease comes to Arizona, state workers and hunters hope it will be discovered in a few months instead of a few years.

“We try very hard to manage our herds to keep them at a maximum level, and all it would take is one serious case of CWD to just throw everything out of balance,” said Rusty Rogers, an avid hunter and committee member for the White Mountain chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The quicker Game & Fish can respond, the greater the likelihood it could limit the spread of the disease.

The department would have to remove the infected deer and any other deer that could have come in contact with the infected animal and its waste.

In other states after CWD was detected, officials released bonus tags to hunters for trying to keep the deer population down, and instituted mandatory CWD testing.

A long road ahead

The Arizona Game & Fish Department spends about $70,000 on CWD testing each year, which is around 27 percent of its wildlife-health budget.

The department hires extra interns in the fall to help operate the Springerville testing station and another one in Kaibab, pick up samples from taxidermists and meat processors, and monitor hunting camps.

“It’s a lot easier for us to keep diseases out than it is to try and control them once they’re here,” Justice-Allen said.

Knowing their game is safe to eat also provides hunters with peace of mind.

“To be clear, it has never been found to cross the species barrier from deer or elk to humans,” Drever said, “but it is still a concern that people have had in their minds of ‘Do I want to eat an animal that has a disease?’”

Despite Arizona’s success so far, experts don’t expect the threat to ease anytime soon.

“This is something that we have to manage over the course of the next 10 to 15 years and maybe even beyond, who knows,” Duncan said. “It’s going to be a decades-long fight, not just year-to-year.”

-Video by Jordan Dafnis

Arizona, U.S. and tribal officials work to save native Apache Trout from extinction

PINETOP – Forest fires, climate change and the wrath of non-native fish are threatening the survival of the Apache trout, a species found only in Arizona.

Apache trout, dubbed the state fish of Arizona, mostly are found mostly near Pinetop, with a significant amount of their territory on Native American reservations. Conservation of the trout has required a decades-long collaboration between the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Arizona Game & Fish Department, nonprofits and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Climate change, the drying out of the forests there, increase chances that there’ll be forest fires, and the general increasing of the temperatures,” said Scott Bonar, the leader of a research cooperative at University of Arizona who has been studying desert fish since 2000.

“When you have a fire, you remove shade to the stream, there is sediment that goes in the stream and hurts the Apache trout,” he said, adding that without certain amounts of water at certain temperatures, the fish die.

To some conservationists, analyzing Apache trout populations, understanding threats to the fish and improving stream conditions is a “biologist’s dream” – but it requires a huge effort.

Arizona Game & Fish employees Bryan Giordano and Mike Lopez are tasked with the Apache trout’s survival in Pinetop. They will walk up shallow streams in tandem, Giordano wearing a large electrofishing backpack plugged into a pole he sweeps in the water. Lopez walks close behind with a net, waiting for Giordano to stun an Apache trout they can catch, examine and safely release.

“Electrofishing is the main technique we use to capture fish,” said Lopez, a fish program manager. “We use it during surveys. It’s a system that puts an electrical shock in the water that stuns the fish temporarily, and we can net them up quickly.”

They quickly catch a trout and place it in a yellow sack filled with water. Lopez gently wraps his fingers around the trout and lifts it up. It’s golden brown with small black dots, an Apache trout.

“It’s not often that a trout species is confined to one state,” said Giordano, a stream biologist.

“The state fish of Arizona, it’s unique,” Lopez added. “They exist nowhere else in the world except for Arizona.”

The tribal, state and federal coalition has had success in downgrading Apache trout from endangered to threatened, a rare victory in the conservation world. But the progress can be fragile.

Droughts and fires

Wildfires can wipe out an entire stream of Apache trout, undoing years of progress, Giordano and Lopez said.

The 2011 Wallow fire, for example, devastated Fish Creek, an area that Game & Fish officials had hoped to reopen to anglers.

“We had Apache trout restocked … the adult population was up over a 1,000 fish, which is pretty significant,” Lopez said. “Then the Wallow fire hit and had some really severe burns in that Fish Creek watershed. And the monsoon following that fire had some pretty intense storms in that watershed. Just blew out that whole stream.”

Even without fires, higher temperatures can make the water too warm for Apache trout, or dry up creeks completely.

“If we’re going to save the species into the future,” Lopez said, “we need to look at some of these larger, more permanent streams. … If you have a larger population and a larger stream, it’s more resilient to these long-term droughts and wildfire.”

“That’s where we’re really starting to butt heads with anglers because now we’re getting into some of those streams that they like to fish,” he added.

Fish and sportfish

Arizona Game & Fish has several methods for eliminating the non-native fish, including brown, brook and rainbow trout, that have displaced the Apache trout.

During the summer, Giordano takes interns into the field to electrofish for hours, analyzing the Apache trout and removing invasive species.

“They’ve barriered off streams, they used mechanical and chemical control to remove non-native fishes that cause problems for the Apache trout,” said Bonar, the UA desert-fish researcher. “They’ve done a very good job of increasing the amount of area where there are Apache trout.”

Game & Fish also builds dams when necessary to separate native and non-native populations, and workers sometimes chemically treat a waterway to kill Apache trout competitors.

These other species either would overpower the Apache trout, driving down their populations, or crossbreed with them, essentially eliminating what makes Arizona’s state fish unique.

“Habitat degradation, cattle grazing, logging, road building, a lot of things like that would impact Apache trout habitat,” Lopez said. “And over time, they just started disappearing and being replaced with these non-native trout species.”

The non-native fish originally were introduced as an extra food source, but the White Mountain Apache Tribe noticed the damage to Apache trout and sounded the first alarm.

Some anglers, however, want to preserve non-native trout populations and continue using the streams they inhabit for sport.

“We have all these balances we’re trying to maintain,” Lopez said.

“I spent a lot of time fishing for brown trout, Mike does as well,” Giordano said. “We try to understand the balance that the sport fish, the non-natives, can provide. But I also have a lot of fun going out and fishing for Apache trout as well.”

Bonar agrees with Giordano, and understands why some anglers don’t want their favorite streams interfered with. But the Apache trout is too special to lose, Bonar said.

“How often do people get a chance to go see rare artwork? People collect rare coins. People have interest in rare things,” Bonar said. “Apache trout is extremely rare. … It’s part of Arizona’s heritage.”